‘Fat Faced Passion’ by Maxim Gorky: Short Story Analysis
‘Fat Faced Passion’ is a Socialist Realistic short story penned by Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, popularly known as Maxim Gorky. Maxim Gorky was the founder of the Socialist Realistic literary style widely used to produce artistic material in the USSR or Soviet Russia in the early part of the twentieth century. He vehemently opposed the Tsarist Regime and the Bolshevik seizure of power during the Russian Revolution of 1917. He went on to attack the victorious Lenin’s dictatorial methods in his newspaper ‘New Life’. Like ‘Fat Faced Passion’, most of his writings are either set in the period when Russia was on the brink of or in the middle of a Communist Revolution. In this short story titled ‘Fat Faced Passion’, Gorky shows the ill-effects of the Industrial Revolution in the urban centers of Russia, which include the displacement as well as the migration of workers to the cities. The story also deals with the lack of open space because of the setting up of heavy-duty industries and the lack of humanism in the urban areas. Masha and her twelve-year-old son Lyonka paint a sad and heart-wrenching spectacle of what life was like in Russia in the early days of the twentieth century. I have analyzed another short story by Maxim Gorky dealing with a similar topic titled ‘Her Lover’, which you can check out here.
The story opens with Masha, the scar-faced and disfigured prostitute dancing in a mucky and filthy puddle in the middle of an urban road because she was dead drunk. A twenty-one-year-old man named Leonid tries to pull her out of the muck because it is knee-deep, and there is a possibility of her drowning. He does this out of the pity and compassion he has for his fellow proletariat, unlike the night guard who dismisses that Masha needs help and says that Masha makes such drunken scandals every night. Probably he was trying to hint that Masha would act like this purposely so that men could take her home and then have sex with her. Leonid takes her home and takes off her clothes in front of her twelve-year-old disabled son. He does this not to have sex with her but to dry her wet clothing near the grungy room’s stove. Masha lies dead asleep in a drunken stupor on her bed while Leonid converses with the boy Lyonka.
Lyonka’s real name happens to be Leonid as well. This is indicative that the twenty-one-year-old Leonid sees Lyonka as a picture of his own young and idealistic self. This also means that he looks upon Masha as his mother and not a lover. Maxim Gorky is always very tender in his descriptions of the relationship between son and mother. This is evident in this short story titled ‘Fat Faced Passion’ as well. Lyonka is crippled and has withered legs. However, he is highly idealistic and dreams of one day growing old enough to beg so that his drunken mother could buy him a cart. He then wishes to beg and travel in that cart and go, primarily to find and see an open field. The open field indicates that the industrialized urban center was so overpopulated with industries, a multitude of people living in hovels, and pollution that the disabled boy’s one dream was to see an open field.
Lyonka was a sort of reflective biologist or zoologist in the making. He kept a menagerie of bugs in boxes and showed these bugs to Leonid. However, these bugs are the grosser and ‘lower’ order of bugs or insects; for example, cockroaches and flies. This represents the proletariat indirectly who was forever at the mercy of the ‘haves’ or the elite class. Among these bugs, one cockroach is named ‘Animism’ by Lyonka. Lyonka says Animism boasts like a soldier. Then comes a fly called ‘Bureaucrat’, scum on the earth because of his harsh dealings and corruption. Lastly, the cockroach named ‘Landlord’ is a shameless rich drunkard keeping the ‘have-nots’ in check and living in poverty. Maxim Gorky seems to give us a crude but effective lesson in basic Marxist and Socialist elements in this little zoological exercise. The unfortunate thing was that Lyonka had no ‘pretty’ insects of the higher order or class, that is, moths and butterflies. This is because they were rare to find, especially in the ghettos of industrialized towns and cities. The higher order were few during the Tsarist regime, but they had most of the collective monetary resources and power in their grasp.
Leonid is a kvass salesman. Kvass is a fermented grain drink, sort of alcoholic beer. To create that tangy fermented flavor, kvass makers start with Russian brown bread. You soak it in water and then add some yeast to get what you want. Thus, it is evident that Leonid had a good stock of kvass which was liked by Lyonka’s mother, Masha. Leonid would also be able to get a lot of boxes to pack the kvass in. This is obvious to the disabled boy, so he asks Leonid for kvass and boxes to keep more bugs. Leonid does more than just that. The next day he procures clean boxes, bugs, butterflies, cookies, and buns. This was considerate of Leonid. Gorky always paints such young, educated men of Russia during and around the Communist Revolution in this manner.
Lyonka and his mother, Masha, appreciate the goodies that Leonid buys. Lyonka eats candy and then saves the paper wrapping neatly so that he may use it to make something good for his only friend Katka, a water-delivery girl. She is the only friend the disabled boy had. It was infatuation on his side while the water-delivery girl only humored a poor, helpless, and enthusiastic little boy. Lyonka and Masha are poor. Lyonka has probably not been educated at all. He thinks that becoming a beggar is a promotion in life which denotes the sad state of affairs in his family. Lyonka categorically mentions in the first part of the short story titled ‘Fat Faced Passion’ that men came to sleep with his mother and take off her clothes. He was used to the day and night regiment of a prostitute. However, Lyonka feels Leonid is different as he did not take off his mother’s clothes, he did not beat her like her other lovers, and Leonid was good to Lyonka. Lyonka, therefore, tells his mother, Masha, to marry Leonid.
Lyonka has seen too much tragedy and poverty in his young life. He finds it eventful to be able to look out his basement window. But even this wish is not granted him because Masha always forgets to clean the window. She never raises her disabled son to look outside the window, because she is depressed, an alcoholic, and a woman who is looked down upon due to her scarred face. She was once a maid to a notary. A notary is a publicly commissioned official who serves as an impartial witness to the signing of a legal document. Document signings where notary services are required include real estate deeds, affidavits, wills, trusts, and powers of attorney. Masha’s man was Lyonka’s father but seemed to be out of the picture where Masha is concerned. She, probably, had conceived Lyonka without marring the notary. The government official must have rejected Masha because of her face and because his newborn son had a disability.
Lyonka has a Romantic way of looking at life. Romanticism is present in most of Maxim Gorky’s Socialistic Realistic fiction: existentialism interspersed with Romanticism. This is not to be mistaken with Social Issue Realistic Fiction which concerns highlighting social issues in general and not only on a Communist level. I have written two Social Issue Fiction novels: NIRMALA: The Mud Blossom and Amina: The Silent One, which you can check out on my blog’s products page. They deal with women’s social issues, mainly of slum-dwelling Indian urban women. On the other hand, Socialistic Realism is idealized realistic art developed in the Soviet Union and was the official style in that country between 1932 and 1988 and in other socialist countries after World War II. Socialist Realism is characterized by the depiction of communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat.
Masha’s scarred face is like the scarred face of Russian society because of sudden rampant industrialization. She is probably a migrant to the urban center where this short story takes place and lives in a ghetto with her only son, whom she adores. Lyonka has nightmares where he sees a tree upside down or a dog that keeps eating his mother’s intestines and spitting them out. The first dream concerns the upside-down nature of the early twentieth century that has brought industrialization but no salvation to the Russian poor. The dog in the dream represents the ‘haves’ who pull out the very innards of the ‘poor’ or ‘have-nots’ and then squander the money. This is also indicative of the landed class in Russia. Symbology flows effortlessly and beautifully through the pen of Maxim Gorky. Another Russian short-story writer who writes equally moving prose is Leo Tolstoy. You will find my analysis of his short stories here.
Masha tells Lyonka that he must not have an almost divine adoration for open fields like was found in Russia’s rural agricultural farms during the time of the Tsars. She warns him that there were only prison camps, trouble-making soldiers, and drunken muzhiks in these rural areas. A muzhik means a Russian peasant during the rule of the Tsars. Masha lightly threatens Lyonka, not taking his fascination with the open field seriously, but Leonid does.
When Masha thanks Leonid for making her son happy and that she would like to repay him by having sex with him, Leonid refuses. Masha insists, thinking that he declined because of her scarred and disfigured face, which she says she would cover, but he still refuses. When he leaves the house, that is the time he hears Masha singing a little ditty or lullaby to her twelve-year-old idealistic son. The main theme of this song is ‘Fat Faced Passions’, which is indicative and symbolic of many things:
- The ‘haves’ who ravished Lyonka’s mother because of their ‘fat-faced passions’. They are ‘fat’ because apparently, they are rich and wealthy and well-fed. They bring with them disasters because they beat Masha, which upsets Lyonka.
- Masha is aware that the Russia of their time is changing. The dawn of the twentieth century marks a vague change in Russia’s whole structure and functioning, which would shake and move the entire globe’s actions for the next century.
- When things grow difficult Masha wonders where she, a prostitute, and her son, will go, when the rich with their ‘ fat-faced passions’ come to harm her or her little boy? Her question is a pitiable and pathetic rhetorical question. For the poor and down-trodden, even after the revolution and the establishment of the USSR, were as badly off as they were during the Tsars’ time.
I enjoyed and was edified reading and analyzing this short story by Russian-Soviet writer Maxim Gorky. I have his whole collection in my office-cum-writing hut. I live a life of a solitary recluse in the company of 32,000 books. If you want to know more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my two memoirs: Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai or a shorter version The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra. I hope to analyze more short stories by Maxim Gorky soon.
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